After six years in retirement to concentrate on her work with troubled youth and to raise her family, Kathleen Wharton will play for the Warriors in the NRL Women's Premiership. Steve Deane from newsroom.co.nz spoke to her about her comeback.
It may still be in its infancy, but the NRL Women's Premiership is already having a major impact on women’s rugby league in New Zealand.
Kathleen Wharton (previously Keremete) could see the changes unfolding from her spot on the sidelines in comfortable retirement. The quality of play was improving, the speed of the game ramping up, and the players becoming more athletic. And people were beginning to take notice.
If not quite centre-stage yet, women’s rugby league had at least been coaxed out of the shadows.
“Watching it last year I was thinking 'hmmm – I wonder if I’d still be up to it?'” the 35-year-old former World Cup winning Kiwi Ferns back rower recalls.
Having retired from the game at all levels not long after the birth of her second child - and subsequently had a third - Wharton had been out of the game for six years, and was more than content with that situation.
“I’d played for a good chunk of my life and won a World Cup, played test matches and done stuff at club level – which is probably the most important for me. I’d done quite a few things, but it was very time-consuming. I’m very big on being fully committed and wholeheartedly into something. For me it is all-in or nothing, so I just walked away happy knowing I had done my thing.”
Then along came the NRL Women's Premiership, and that contentment abated, replaced by an itch she’d ultimately have to scratch.
“The inclusion of women in the NRL gave me motivation to see if I was still up to it. I just thought I’d have a crack," she says.
Turns out that she is up to it. After successfully returning for her beloved Papakura Sisters, she was ushered back into the Kiwi Ferns for the thumping 46-8 victory over Fetu Samoa in June, marking her return to the fold with a try.
It was during camp for that match that she was told she’d be offered a NRLW contract by the Warriors.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but I am quietly excited,” she says.
The time out of the game, a couple of childbirths and a few more years on the clock did leave her wondering if she could still foot it with the best. However Wharton has been pleasantly surprised by how well her body has coped with the rigours of the sport.
“The biggest thing was contact, seeing how my body would hold up week-in, week-out. It has been really great, and my mind has been just as good. The hardest thing is juggling attendance at training and all the off-field stuff that needs to happen.”
That stuff, of course, being everything that comes with being a working mother of three.
“Thankfully I have a great husband. He’s my real driving force – he’s pretty much Dad, which allows me the time to train and do what I need to do to make it happen.”
As if juggling an elite sports career and motherhood isn’t enough, Wharton also has more than most on her plate at work. Fair to say her job as facilitator of restorative justice conferences for young criminal offenders and their victims in South Auckland comes with its challenges.
“For me the hardest part is dealing with the victims,” she says. “I have to ensure the victims are really well looked after, make sure that they are an important part of the process as well.
“It is challenging. We have a really high criminal rate for our young offenders. The office I work in is the busiest in the country. We look after Mangere, Otahuhu and Papatoetoe. It is continuous and it can become quite heavy.
“But we get some really good stories. I have some great kids I work with, some that I know I have made a difference with who I’ll see in 20 years’ time with their own kids hopefully doing really well.”
It’s not the sort of occupation that would appeal to everyone, but for Wharton the chance to make a positive impact in the community she grew up in, working with her people, is truly rewarding.
“I grew up in Mangere, probably a standard south Auckland story. We didn’t have much. I got to see both sides of the world, the darker side and the lighter side. I lived between the two. So I feel like I am really relatable. Ninety percent of [the offenders] are Maori. I just felt I could create big change, be an ambassador. Because a lot of the workers aren’t of Maori descent and I know our whanau can’t connect very well with them."
Her status as international sportswoman – and now NRL player – isn’t common knowledge at work. Even her boss, who is an avid sports fan, found out about her inclusion in the Warriors squad through the media.
“I don’t let anyone know. Only a couple of people in the office know,” Wharton says.
Although it might impress them, she’s not in the habit of mentioning it to the young offenders she deals with.
“I feel like I don’t need that status to make an impact with young people.”
With the Warriors’ men’s team in a familiar lower table position and a long shot to make the NRL finals, it's likely the women will be flying the club’s flag in September and October.
The signing of dual-code star Honey Hireme and recruitment of some exciting emerging talent has Wharton feeling optimistic the club can improve on last season’s showing, when they won their opening match against the Roosters but failed to qualify for the grand final after losing to Hireme's St George Illawarra Dragons and eventual champions, the Brisbane Broncos.
“We’ve got some real X-factor that I’m excited about. There is a couple of Fijian international players that have joined our squad. Honey is in great shape and some of the senior girls who have been around a long time are in really great form – Krystal [Rota] and Hilda [Mariu], so I’m quietly excited.
“As long as we can bring it all together, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
- This story was originally published on Locker Room at www.newsroom.co.nz and is republished with permission.